|Robert I. Katz: The Anatomy Lesson|
Willowgate Press (Trade Paperback), ISBN 1-930008-10-4
With his first novel, Edward Maret, Robert I. Katz delivered a good science-fiction novel, albeit somewhat rough around the edges. His second novel, Surgical Risk, marked a shift into the mystery genre. Surgical Risk introduced the characters Richard Kurtz (a surgeon with a penchant for getting into trouble) and Lew Barent (a grizzled, hard-bitten NYPD homicide detective). Again, Katz delivered a good novel that displayed minor problems. With The Anatomy Lesson, however, Katz finally hits the nail on the head.
The second in the Kurtz and Barent series, The Anatomy Lesson opens with a grisly practical joke played at a teaching hospital Halloween party. Someone replaces the props with genuine body parts, purloined from the cadavers on which the students learn dissection techniques.
Shortly afterwards, a colleague and friend of Kurtz's, Rod Mahoney, turns up murdered, the corpse hideously dismembered in a manner reminiscent of the teaching hospital cadavers. Can the prank and the murder be related? What's the connection between them and the growing evidence of a turf war between the drug barons who operate in New York? Once again forced to be reluctant partners in detection, Kurtz and Barent swing into action, assisted on occasion by Kurtz's alluring mistress, Lenore.
The novel performs well on the "soap opera front" -- the backdrop of the major characters' ongoing lives. Barent must learn to like his son-in-law as the pair acclimate themselves to the pregnancy of Barent's daughter. Kurtz and Lenore move marriage-ward, despite the disapproval of Lenore's mother. And so on.
It also performs well as a detection -- really, as two detections (I'd be giving the game away if I expanded on this). The way the novel slowly unravels the earlier life of Mahoney, the focal victim, works particularly well. The character one assumes to be a stock mystery victim -- rather staid, rather boring -- becomes progressively more three-dimensional. Behind the fašade one begins to perceive something close to a dashing romantic hero. It's a beautifully handled example of the inherent fallacy in our all-too-common assumption that today's superficially dull old sticks have always been thus.
Of considerable further interest is the way in which Katz manages to blend two fiction traditions in a single novel. As mentioned enigmatically above, The Anatomy Lesson offers the reader, in effect, two detections for the price of one. The first of these accords to the traditions of the classic mystery; the second belongs more in the line of the modern crime novel. In theory this should lead to a stylistic clash. In practice, Katz weaves the two skillfully together, so you rarely perceive any dichotomy.
The Anatomy Lesson offers an ideal introduction to Kurtz and Barent, although you may want to pick up Surgical Risk first. If you read Surgical Risk, you'll be delighted by the characters' flowering in this new novel.
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